Part 11: The Firestarter

by Timothy Malcolm

Pop.

 

“The Phillies say Chase Utley will address reporters Sunday. That is all.”

Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer tweeted that on 1:12 p.m., Friday, March 23. It was retweeted fourteen times. @JCristello23 was one of the retweeters. His next tweet:

“Watch Utleys goin to announce his retirement Sunday”

One day before, Will Carroll of SI.com tweeted that Utley was traveling to Arizona to see Dr. Thomas Carter, “an expert in the field of orthopedic surgery and sports medicine,” as well as in “meniscus replacements and treatment of articular cartilage injuries.”

At the same exact moment Gelb tweeted the news of a Sunday press gaggle, John Finger of CSNPhilly.com informed readers that Utley had returned from Arizona, where he met “with knee specialists.” Finger also quoted Ruben Amaro Jr., who commented, “I still think Chase is going to be back at some point, but we just don’t know when.”

On March 20, David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote a column headlined “Utley’s career could be in jeopardy.” He led with an allusion to Utley’s six-year prime. This was the cream of his nut graph:

“At 33 years old, the best second baseman in Phillies history is fighting just to make it back onto the field. And until he succeeds, we can’t help but wonder.”

Murphy proceeded to offer Charlie Manuel’s take, which he deemed had to be faithfully optimistic. Then came Ruben Amaro’s take, which included this quote: “I worry about Chase because it’s a chronic problem. About his career? I don’t know.” The final take came from Jimmy Rollins, whose quote was “If he doesn’t play again that would be something horrible. That would be horrible. But I don’t see it that way. At least I hope that’s not the case.” Murphy ended with his take:

“Six years might mean a long run for a beagle. But for an athlete the caliber of Utley, it should mean a career that has barely begun.”

On Sunday, March 25, Chase Utley, the man who hadn’t played an inning of spring training baseball, whose knees had been the subject of a two-year carousel of speculation, met the gaggle of reporters to discuss his future.

“I was in Phoenix meeting with a physical therapist by the name of Brett Fischer for about four of five days, just to get some better ideas on how I can continue to move forward,” Utley told the gaggle, as transcribed by Ryan Lawrence of the Delaware County Times. “I have a better idea now on how my body is supposed to move compared to how it’s moving at this time, and I think we have something pretty good for the future.”

No surgery. No injections. And no retirement.

“Oh. I didn’t hear that one. I’m definitely not retiring.”

But holding a press gaggle?

“I did not feel the need. But there are a lot of rumors out there, which I don’t know how they get started. I understand you guys look for things to write about, but now you have the information so there’s no need to make things up or to speculate.”

Chase Utley had not played all spring. This followed the previous spring, in which Utley did not play at all, then announced that he suffered from chondromalacia, and his return to baseball was unknown. During this spring, Utley had avoided reporters constantly, leading Lawrence to write a blog post about being avoided by Utley. The second baseman is known to shroud himself from the media; he would much rather let his play on the field speak for him. Numerous baseball players have shown this same quality. In Philadelphia, Mike Schmidt generally strayed from reporters. Steve Carlton never said a word.

Instead, Ruben Amaro Jr. and the Phillies publicity corps would allege that Utley was close to returning. Then, as time passed and Utley hadn’t returned, things became unclear. In time, the Utley knee carousel was a child’s toy lost in the fog. There was no answer. No right. No wrong. Nothing but a superstar second baseman, one of the greatest second basemen to ever play baseball, hidden from playing baseball, hidden from the media, hidden from the estate that connects information to the fans. So the fans couldn’t help but wonder.

Rumors begin because truth is not available. And rumors spread when the truth is withheld. In Philadelphia, with information concerning the Phillies, and one of its cornerstone players, a notoriously hushed player, withheld information simply doesn’t spread rumor, it spreads wildfire. It’s the very fire that begins as a white heat warming in the darkness of December, when the ridiculous rumors fuel and idle chatter fellates, and few are focused on pops and cracks, on gloves and bats, towels waving frantically in the chilly October night. The fire is kindled at Citizens Bank Park, but it’s also at Frankford and Cottman avenues, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, at a farm in Vineland, New Jersey, and at a business office in Wilmington, Delaware. The fire is everywhere. The opinionated words of reporters and speculators will help the fire spread, but the withholding of truth, the illusion of doubt, the seeping specter of paranoia – all of those things are sprays of gasoline.

The truth – the actual, confirmed truth – is that Utley will miss opening day. He will stretch differently, he will rehabilitate differently. His left knee now hurts more than his right knee, but nothing hurts as much as it hurt last season. Utley hopes to return soon in 2012. He can’t wait to contribute. But he’s not ready. Freddy Galvis will likely start opening day at second base. A 22-year-old will stand where Utley had always stood, and the kid will take grounders and choppers, and hit deep in the Phillies lineup, and hope to offer some positive contribution to a team that already looks different from anything assembled in Philadelphia over the past decade.

And the totality of that truth, all of that, is that the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies are not the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies, nor the version of 2010, which finished two wins from the World Series, nor the version of 2009, which finished two wins from a championship. And the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies are not the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies, the squad that broke the ceiling, erupted an inferno and brought the ailing city its first title in a generation. Instead, these Phillies are broken, busted, older than dirt, and younger than diapers. They’re Halladay and Lee and Hamels, and they’re Rollins and Victorino and Ruiz, but they’re the minority. Now it’s Thome and Papelbon, Wigginton and Nix, Mayberry and Pence, and 22-year-old Freddy Galvis. They’re uncertainty. They’re underdog. Yes, they’re looking decidedly different than their 2011 vintage. And they’re The Big Story. They’re speculation and criticism, and paranoia and lunacy. And for the first time in a long time, the Philadelphia Phillies are a raging, impossible wildfire.

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